Since making his feature debut in 2005 with CONSTANTINE, Francis Lawrence has appeared to be a talented tentpole filmmaker in search of the right franchise. Though all of his films possess the requisite scale and production value, they have, for a variety of reasons (e.g. studio and/or movie star interference), fallen short in the story department. So perhaps it's a good thing that, when you discuss CONSTANTINE, I AM LEGEND and WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, you really don't discuss Lawrence at all.
This should change with THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. Taking over the franchise reins from Gary Ross, Lawrence has maintained the first film's brutalist production design while adopting a steadier (i.e. less hand-held) visual aesthetic. CATCHING FIRE is the best kind of four-quadrant blockbuster: it's briskly paced, but not frontloaded with spectacle for fear the audience might tire of the intricate political machinations leading up to the games. It's polished, confident stuff. Lawrence and his Oscar-winning screenwriters (Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt) know they've got commercial gold in Suzanne Collins's bestselling tome, so they take their time with the setup and let us get wrapped up in Katniss Everdeen's plight all over again. Lawrence also leaves ample room for the new cast members to make their mark - particularly Sam Claflin, whose Finnick Odair is the first male character in these movies to throw off sparks with Lawrence's emotionally chilly Katniss.
Hopefully, you obeyed the spoiler warning attached to this article, so you're not going to flip out when I say that CATCHING FIRE is the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of this franchise. The difference here is that Lawrence is not a one-and-done for-hire director ala Irvin Kershner; Lionsgate feels they've found their man, so he's sticking around for the final two films in the series.
When I chatted with Lawrence at the Los Angeles press day, it was clear that he's creatively energized by this series. Having survived the pressure cooker of CONSTANTINE and I AM LEGEND, he's thrilled to be working with producers who are more supportive than intrusive, and an ensemble cast that's primarily focused on doing justice to Collins's books. CATCHING FIRE places Lawrence in the upper-echelon of tentpole directors. I wouldn't be surprised if he books a ticket to a galaxy far, far away sometime in the near future.
Mr. Beaks: The political intrigue leading up to the games is much more interesting this time. You definitely take your time getting us into the arena. Were you worried about pacing at all in letting it play out somewhat deliberately? I'm thinking specifically of the scenes with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Francis Lawrence: What's interesting is that stuff that was added. In the books it's one point-of-view; you're with Katniss 100 percent of the time. But CATCHING FIRE is totally an antagonist-driven story. Everything that's happening is happening because Snow is deciding some event is going to happen, and Katniss is acting because of that; then something changes, and Snow reacts to that. It was important to see those scenes and sequences we always thought were happening behind the scenes with Snow and Plutarch. Those were backwards engineered, where you know certain events are happening in District 12 or within the games, and then you have to think about "If the two of them are working together trying to figure out what to do with Katniss Everdeen, where are those scenes taking place? How are they coming to those decisions?" It was really fun stuff to develop because it wasn't in the book.
Beaks: That chess match continues into the games. There's another level to the games this time. In adapting the story, did you feel you had to simplify or clarify these machinations?
Lawrence: No, but you have to be super careful. Without giving too much away, there's a lot going on and a lot of plans that you're unsure of for a while. It's making sure that you're threading that story through in a way that you can look back and go, "Okay, I can see how that would happen under my nose" - as it all happens under Katniss's nose. We had to make sure that the story was working on those fronts, but we didn't want to be too obvious with anything. Then it becomes expository and boring and too on-the-nose. It loses its mystery.
Beaks: This is also an ensemble story. I was just talking to Jeffrey Wright, and he said that you were a great director for this because you brought no ego to the set. But you've also got a newly-minted Oscar winner in Jennifer Lawrence. Was there any massaging of egos?
Lawrence: Not with this group. It could be really tricky. I look at a movie like THE AVENGERS - and, by the way, I don't know any of those actors, but I just think about getting all those guys and girls in a room, and it makes my head spin thinking about trying to corral a group like that. It's not the case with this group. The only thing you have to corral is that everybody's having so much fun. You've got this group of people, they're all really fun, they're all really talented, but you're on a beach in Hawaii. At times, it's like, "Okay, let's get serious and figure this out for a second." But there's no ego and no massaging. It was just making sure - especially for Jeffrey, because he's got such a vital role - that everybody was super clear on what was really happening behind the scenes. That was a hard thing to track, but Jeffrey's a really smart guy, and was in on it. And Jena, who's also very smart about all of that. It was great. The dynamic was fantastic.
Beaks: When adapting these books, you have to be mindful of giving the fans what they want to some degree. Were there any elements that were set in stone, that couldn't be elided?
Lawrence: Yeah, but those become pretty obvious when you read the book. I was a fan of the book, so I knew there were a bunch of things that I wanted in. And it just happens when you're adapting something that's 400 pages long down to two hours, there's just going to be stuff that you're going to lose. There's stuff you feel like, "It's a bummer, but that's not going to make it." And when you start to look at the way the structure of a story transplants from novel to screenplay, there are certain things you have to lose in terms of pace. You're now in a different format, and you have to create different rhythms, and you can't take the breaks or diversions that a novel could take without losing a certain momentum that you need. There's an inevitable loss of some things that are some fan's favorite moment, but, ideally, we've gotten the spirit right and all of the tentpole ideas in there. That's the important thing.
Beaks: As for momentum and pace, what was the rough cut like? How did you find this version of the film? Was there a lot of testing?
Lawrence: Not a lot of testing, that's for sure. Editing was tricky, but only because of the complexity of the movie and the time we had to finish it. We finished shooting in March because we had a little bit of a delay with Jennifer's awards campaign; she had to go off and do that before we could finish our last two weeks. Then we finish [in March], and, typically, with a big effects film, you have to turn your effects around first. So I had to start out of order and really dig into the monkey sequence, getting into the arena, the tidal wave, the spinning island stuff... you sort of go down the line and realize that for the first six weeks of cutting, you're just doing effects sequence after effects sequence. Some of them are complicated. It took a week to shoot the monkey sequence, so it took a week of my [DGA-mandated] ten-week director's cut to cut that monkey sequence. The original assembly was about three hours, and I knew it couldn't be that. So we just started whittling away slowly, and you begin to find the rhythm. Once the effects sequences are done, I like to go in order, reel-by-reel, and get a sense of rhythm for the reel and go from there. We got it down to the current runtime pretty quickly. We did one friends-and-family screening, and that went really well. It didn't change much in length after that.
Beaks: Is there a director's cut coming for the Blu-ray?
Lawrence: There's very little scene-wise cut out of the movie. Most of the cuts that we did were in the adaptation. There are a couple of little things: there's Gale and Katniss in the Hob early on. There's a scene on the rooftop with Katniss and Peeta that's very short. But most of it's just pacing and line cuts. We didn't lose much that we shot.
Beaks: Given the nature of this story, you are kind of the Irvin Kershner of this series, except you get to close it out.
Lawrence: I'm really excited that I get to stay on and close it out, especially because I believe that the last book gives the whole series its meaning and impact.
Beaks: We've seen movies end like this before. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and BACK TO THE FUTURE 2 did it, but it's always a tricky proposition to send the audience out on a cliffhanger. How do you feel about that?
Lawrence: I think it's exciting. I think it sets up the next movie. We know the story continues on. Those books exist, so if you want to know you can go and read the book. You know, I got really addicted to BREAKING BAD, and I thought a lot about those episodes. Those BREAKING BAD openings and BREAKING BAD endings... the only difference is that you get a new one next week as opposed to having to wait a year. I love moments like that.
Beaks: You inherited the general look of this universe, but you've augmented it in certain ways. Were there any science-fiction films that served as a touchstone for your approach?
Lawrence: I didn't really pull from science-fiction for this. We looked at a lot of movies about Vietnam. I'm a huge fan of APOCALYPSE NOW, so I looked at that for color references for the jungle. I looked at PLATOON. I also looked at some gladiator movies like SPARTACUS - which is a huge influence for [Suzanne Collins]. I did look at a little of 1984, but not much science-fiction. All the references for me were sort of organic. For the arena, it was Vietnam stuff. For the districts... I don't remember if I had any references for the districts, but no science-fiction for this one in terms of homage or inspiration.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is currently making a good deal of money in theaters worldwide.